Tuesday, October 26, 2021 • R.I.P. Edition • But first you're gonna blow me!

Interview: Dale Lazarov Talks Smart, Wholesome Gay Comics Smut, Censorship, That Infamous Milo Manara Spider-Woman Variant, and the iPhone 6

Written by Jude Terror on Wednesday, September 10 2014 and posted in Features
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Interview: Dale Lazarov Talks Smart, Wholesome Gay Comics Smut, Censorship, That Infamous Milo Manara Spider-Woman Variant, and the iPhone 6

We also talk about beefcake variants, the history of gay erotic comics, the creative process, silent comics, and much, much more! Oh, but not actually the iPhone 6.



Dale Lazarov has been a writer of gay erotic comics, lovingly self-dubbed "Smart, wholesome gay comics smut," for over a decade, and a writer of prose fiction since the 1980s. His work has been praised by critics and literary peers, from Clive Barker to the Huffington Post. In the wake of the recent controversy surrounding Milo Manara's mixing of erotic imagery with mainstream superhero comics, we thought this would provide an excellent entry point (heh) to talk to Dale about his work, get his thoughts on the Spider-Woman covergate and erotic comics in general, give erotic comics some positive exposure outside the context of a Marvel or DC tone-deafness scandal, and take a look at what it's like to make explicit gay erotic comics in a comics industry that's still struggling with inclusiveness in general.

Dale was kind enough to answer our (sometimes uninformed) questions at great length (heh), and even if you're not looking for something to wank to his books, I recommend you read on with an open mind - there may be more to this "gay comics smut" than you expect. Scroll to the end for links to purchase Dale's books. Or, at any time throughout the interview, click on one of the images to be taken immediately to his website to purchase this smut post haste! You can buy DRM-free digital versions, which is already better than 90% of the mainstream comic book industry is willing to offer you. Without any further ado, let's get this thing started!

 

(Warning and/or great reason to scroll down: some of the images below may be NSFW)

 

Hi Dale, thanks for joining us. Normally it's at this point that I apologize for whatever damage associating with us will do to the interviewee's career, but since you're a pornographer, being featured on The Outhouse might actually be a great fit. Our readers are definitely horny, regardless of whatever else can be said about them.

Well, our gay comics smut has a sense of irreverence and humor so I agree that we are a great fit. That, plus I have never received death threats and I am expecting some from appearing in your magazine.

So you're a purveyor of "gay comics smut." That's basically porn, right? Is there a distinction between "erotic" comics and porn?

The distinction "erotica" technically is supposed to describe "porn made with the literary texture and artistic nuance of fine art and literary fiction" but it's been commandeered to mean "porn that's respectable". Unfortunately, neither I nor my learned friends can figure out how to take the respectability politics component out of the porn/erotica distinction. So I dodge having to take a side by calling what we do "Smart, wholesome gay comics smut", which sounds funny and irreverent without being a distortion of what the comics have to offer.

It does bother some of our fans who disagree with the idea that our gay comics smut is disreputable. But I don't want to affirm respectability politics by embracing the label "erotica". Our tagline also implies an ironical relationship to the idea that comics are dumb trash and that gay comics are purely pornographic in purpose, while, at the same time, being an accurate description of our work.

There is some truth to fans’ complaints against my use of "smut" as part of our self-descriptor. As I've said in our ads, our gay comics smut does more than get you off. Yes, I know this is an astonishing claim. But it's true. Someone on Facebook asked how our gay comics smut does more than get you off. I answered:

1) They give a context of relatedness to the sexuality -- romantic, intimate, congenial, playful, raucous, etc -- depending on the story.

2) They offer a diversity of men that opens the conversation for what's attractive and/or masculine and/or sexy instead of limiting it to narrow types and tropes for gender performance.

3) The bodies, while still erotically-exaggerated, are within human possibility.

4) They are affirmative and cruelty-free without being cheesy or tame.

5) The work is beautiful and well-crafted as sequential and illustrative art, not just as gay comics smut.

6) They allow the reader to participate in the story by filling in the gaps between the panels and the dialogue and captions they lack because they are wordless comics.

7) The comics show the sexuality and relationships happen in a social and cultural context rather than alienated from it.

To paraphrase Alan Moore, Stan Lee’s breakthrough was adding a second dimension to the tropes of his comics. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, what Kurt Busiek does in Astro City is to make the tropes of the series have more layers and textures of narrative meaning and purpose. My hope is to do to our genre what these folks did to theirs.

There's been a lot of discussion lately about the sexualization of female superheroes, with particular focus on that Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover that's been in the news for the past two weeks. As a maker of (and thus The Outhouse's new de facto expert on) erotic comics, how do you feel about that? Do you think it's an objection people have with erotica in general, or is it an issue of there being a proper place for erotic comics and the cover of a Marvel book isn't it, or what?

I expect the same response would have occurred if Marvel had hired Robert Crumb to draw a big-booty She Hulk with a slobbering J. Jonah Jameson sitting on her ass.

Everything is context-dependent. Marvel’s mistake was recontextualizing a talented smut illustrator as the cover artist for a super-heroine who (if I recall correctly) used to be on a Saturday morning cartoon.

When Manara drew a Sandman comic, no one made a peep, because it was for a hardcover book of a comic meant for a grown-up audience. Also, at the time, Tumblr didn’t exist. By one of those perfect ironies, Tumblr is a context for 1) sharing smutty fan art of non-smut comic characters, 2) a social network of traditional comics fans who see capey characters as aspirational figures and who would be troubled by fetishism of the super-female body in this specific (or, in some fans’ cases, any) context. So, of course, the presence of both populations in one social media site is going to generate a (heh) firestorm of flamey-flame debate. In my humble opinion, taking an aspirational figure and sexualizing it is seriously problematic if the audience for it would feel it cheapens what makes the character aspirational.

I suppose that I/we must operate within reasonable standards for the Comics Traditionalists on Tumblr since no one has gone after me/us for our gay comics smut. Or it’s because they understand the context in which we operate as gay comics smut lords.

How do you think, if at all, the reaction would be different if Marvel or DC commissioned a variant cover for a male superhero comic cover done by an artist famous for erotic art featuring men and done in an erotic style? Has this ever been done?

As far as I know, they haven’t tried that. Homerotic beefcake variant covers will happen if the comics industry thinks that they will sell. Given the timid and/or homophobic and misogynistic culture of comic books stores, I don’t think they will; the first thing they will say is that their customers don’t want them or that there are no customers for them.

Knowing how a great percentage of consumers and creators of man-on-man homoerotic art and narrative, comics or otherwise, are women, I think they just don’t want the customers this material would attract or the legal risks that selling it would bring to them.

One of the big arguments I see play out in comments and forum posts is whether male superheroes are sexualized in the same way female characters are, or whether male superheroes are male power fantasy while female superheroes are objectified. As a guy who makes erotic comics for men of men, where do you stand on that? Are male superheroes as they're usually depicted sexualized in the same way female superheroes are?

I think it’s rare. There are exceptions, such as Dick Grayson, who is, by design, drawn as as a twunk (hunky twink). He gets permission to be sexy in a way that Batman doesn’t. Most men in cape comics are drawn as aspirational figures, not erotic figures.

I should take a moment to mention that authorial intent is indeterminate unless the author specifically states it. And a text can make multiple implications that the author(s) did not intend. 

Say, to my gay gaze, Curt Swan’s art is very sexy. He intended to go for grace and athletic realism in his illustration of the male body as he wasn’t gay; his illustrations are aspirational. Now, my gay gaze sees those and thinks they are sexy. Swan’s intention is not relevant to my homogaziness. 



Now, Swan was heavily influenced by the Leyendecker brothers, who WERE gay, but, while they intended homoeroticism in the representation of, say, in the illustration of men’s clothes and sports action, Swan saw grace and athletic realism in the work that he aspired to represent.

Let's talk about your comics. You've been writing erotic fiction since the eighties, right? And you started making comics in the last decade. What made you want to work in the comics medium?

Actually, I have been writing prose fiction since the 80s. I started writing gay erotic comics in 2002. What made me start in gay comics smut was the opportunity to write it at the request of Steve MacIsaac, who I met through a comics message board. He’d read my literary prose fiction and thought I could write gay erotic comics for him. The result was STICKY, which came out in floppies from Eros Comix/Fantagraphics in 2005, in hardcover from Bruno Gmünder Verlag in 2006, and that I now publish digitally through Selz at https://dalelazarov.selz.com/

I decided to keep on writing it with other collaborators as 1) I really enjoyed it, 2) I could do something distinctive and affirmative with the genre and the form, 3) they got published even after the economic traumas of the 2000sies, and 4) my friends said the gay comics smut was far more of a significant literary and artistic achievement than what I was doing before as a prose writer.

The thing is, I have always loved comics but I never had the nerve to write them, partly because there were all sorts of class and prestige issues attached to writing them (what I call “comics shame”) which, nowadays, aren’t really there due to the ascendancy of geek culture in the mainstream. I am of the generation where being a comics reader was to be an outsider so it took the trauma of 2001, and the opportunity I had in 2002, to kick me out of that geek shame.

That said, I am grateful for all the skill sets and knowledge bases I acquired before I started writing gay comics smut because they add a certain depth, sophistication and delicacy to the work that it wouldn’t have if, say, I’d only read or written mainstream comics. Say, as part of my non-comics background, I have ninja research skills, so I researched gay pulp fiction novels of the 50s and 60s as well as romance comics of that era. All that culminated in the script for FAST FRIENDS, which I think is the best script I’ve written: I/we get away with crying in a gay erotic graphic novel featuring manly men because it’s justified on multiple emotional and narrative levels. Making crying in a gay erotic comic not cheesy and not disruptive of the eroticism of the story is a significant achievement as far as I am concerned!

Who inspired or influenced you from the mainstream comics world? What about outside comics?

Here are my comics influences:

1) Henry, the comic strip, taught me that you could tell a story in visual gestures and actions without using dialogue or captions and with a great deal of charm and wit. It also taught me that readers fill in the moments you imply occur between the panels. It also taught me that every panel has to add something to the previous panel rather than just merely reiterate it unless there's a narrative, character-based or thematic purpose to the repetition.

2) The "Write Your Own Comic Page" feature in Sugar & Spike comics taught me that you can trust people imagine their own dialogue if the storytelling (the body language, the facial expressions, the choice of moment, the composition of the frame, etc) imply what it is. This totally saves me from writing bad porn dialogue and captions for the gay erotic comics I write.

3) Silver Age comics taught me that characters had to have "empathic charisma" -- that they had to have a likeability and interpersonal chemistry that is appealing and that you aspire to have. Do you really want to see people fight crime and/or have sex with each other if they are not likeable and/or don't like each other as people? I don't.

4) Sci-Fi and Western comics of the 70s and 80s taught me that a rich and textured setting -- what comics call "backgrounds" -- are part of the mood and sensuality of a comic. This is why I am always confused when manga-style comics completely omit "sense of place" since place communicates so much about the story and characters. Even if sometimes my comics present idealized settings to go with the utopian nature of erotica, they are still meaningful rather than incidental.

5) Indy comics of the '80s and 90's taught me that character-based stories are in the little details.

6) For good, bad or indifferent, my sisters' romance comics also influenced me. They were forbidden for my gender so I had to sneak looks at them...

7) Tom of Finland taught me that gay erotic comics smile. :)

8) ILYA’s (Ed Hillyer’s) gay-themed comic strips taught me that vulnerability, tenderness and wit between gay men can be integrated in a homoerotic context. And that you can use the representation of gay sex to reveal character while still tweaking multiple homoerotic buttons.

Here are my non-comics influences:

1) Luis Buñuel taught me how society shames people for its own benefit. You have to own your sexuality or it’s exploited.

2) Vladimir Nabokov taught me the difference between eroticism and cruelty, selfishness and generosity in sexuality.

3) James Joyce taught me there’s poetry in sexual choreography and feeling, that the orgasm, both in spectacular and intimate terms, is affirmative.

4) Rainer Werner Fassbinder taught me how hungry people are for validation as total beings in the face of prejudice.

5) John Waters taught me that you can be warm, irreverent and filthy at the same time.

6) Jeanette Winterson taught me that you can use sexuality to write about big ideas in subtle and subversive ways, and use big ideas to write about sexuality in subtle and subversive ways.

On your website, you've got quite a few titles available. I had a look through BULLDOGS #2, which promises "hot vicar on vicar action." A vicar is a priest, for our readers who are wondering, and the comic certainly delivers on that promise. FAST FRIENDS is a graphic novel that tells a longer story about the intertwining lives (and sexual encounters) of some people in what looks like New York City in the mid-twentieth century, and there's a lot going on with the characters for the reader to infer. You've also got NIGHTLIFE, MANLY, GOOD SPORTS, and more. What would you say is your flagship title?

I am indifferent to the idea of a flagship title. All our comics are doors through which you are invited to participate in the other comics we put out (pun intended).

You write all of these, and work with a different artist for each series or graphic novel. Is that right? How do you choose your collaborators?

All the collaborative relationships started differently. Steve MacIsaac asked me to write for him. I wrote scripts for Chas after I pitched him ideas for a collaboration and he suggested the premise of one of the scripts in BULLDOGS. I approached Michael Broderick with a pre-existing script. I talked Amy Colburn into collaborating with me by writing a script for her that she couldn’t turn down because I looked at her work carefully and figured out what she could and wanted to draw.

Your comics, at least the ones I've seen, have no dialog or sound effects. They're all "silent" issues, in the tradition of GI Joe #21: Silent Interlude, except with less snake-themed ninjas and more graphic depictions of guys sixty-nining. Why did you make this stylistic choice?

Originally, the stylistic choice was made so I could avoid writing cheesy porn dialogue but justified it economically as the comics would sell internationally. Gay comics smut is a niche culture so having it work as a wordless comic is supposed to expand the opportunities to engage an audience. (That’s why Tom of Finland did wordless comics; he drew comics for a US physique magazine at first.) I keep on doing it because I am really good at it and collaborate with artists who get it.

Yann Duminil, the colorist of NIGHTLIFE, wrote to me about STICKY #1 to say "the lack of word balloons makes your imagination work and I found I was also making my own story while reading, it by filling the gaps with my own fantasies." That’s exactly the effect we are looking for: audience engagement with the story, the character and the sexuality.

I have written a literary graphic novel (read: non-smut) with word balloons and narrative captions but that’s currently in process (translation: the artist is drawing it as I type and the pitch material is going to a literary agent that specializes in graphic novels).

How does the creative process work? Do you script out all the scenes, including the sex scenes, panel by panel? How much input does the artist have into the stories?

I write full scripts where I describe what's needed for the story to come across visually and for the emotional and sexual choreography to be clear across specific panels and pages. Artists are free to add or remove panels as long as the story beats are served by the art. My collaborators rarely replace what I’ve written in the script with something else, and, when they do, it’s an improvement on my script that connects with the totality of the story. I am a very lucky gay erotic comics pornographer.

Also, I edit/art direct at the stages of character design, layout, illustration (pencils and/or inks), and coloring stages, usually as a question of making it work on its terms rather than applying some abstract or arbitrary terms. This might explain why I have worked with folks with mainstream comics styles, indy comics styles, cartoony styles and realistic styles. There are very few styles that can’t be employed in gay comics smut as long as the erotics and emotions of the story are served, as far as I am concerned. As long as the guy or gal artist can draw carnality and sweetness in articulate sequential art, we’re good.

How are sales? Is there a big market for erotic comics, and the sub-genre of male gay erotic comics inside that?

I am unfamiliar with the market for erotic comics in general. I can tell you that in the past ten years, the market has become far more conservative about promoting and selling erotic comics in general. The loss of erotica-friendly Borders stores has to have had an impact on straight comics smut. It had an impact on me, for sure. The disappearance of gay bookstores has put a big dent on sales and my print runs are half of what they used to be five years ago.

Regardless, I continue to place projects for hardcover publication through my German gay art book publisher, Bruno Gmünder Verlag, so there is a market for it, especially in Europe. I sell digital editions at the behest of artists since we get more of the cover price and we can put titles out as soon as they are drawn.

I think the future of gay comics smut will depend on engaging the most avid and growing population for them: women who like gay smut and own digital devices to read it.

Where do you sell? Most of the comic shops I've been to don't have erotic sections, and sex shops don't often have big comic sections. Do you do most of your business online?

Most of our US readers buy the hardcovers through Amazon or our digital offerings through Selz. EU readers get our hardcovers through regular bookstores, comics stores and gay bookstores; they don’t have much of an interest in digital as of this writing.

In an age where people can find the most hardcore HD video porn easily and for free on the internet, how do you compete? What do your comics have to offer that sets them apart from other available erotic media?

There’s really no competition. If a reader doesn’t think that our gay comics smut is distinctive and evocative as smut, then it’s not for him or her.

Also, our comics are very comixy; they do things comics do that other mediums can’t. Comics are able to represent both the spectacular and intimate in a way that I don’t think I could do with prose.

Do you see your comics more as part of the comics industry, the porn industry, a little bit of both, or something else entirely?

I am still waiting for people with the agency to promote quality amongst the masses, and who understand quality comics or quality gay smut, to recognize us. Until they do, we’ll always be a happy outlier.

I'm guessing that the average American comic book reader is fairly ignorant of erotic comics. I'm not an expert by any means. I think most people are familiar with Tijuana bibles, the miniature underground comics that were sexually explicit, usually parodying popular comic book or strip characters in the early half of the 20th century, if for no other reason than they were featured in Watchmen. And I think people are vaguely aware that erotic comics are common in Europe thanks to imports like Heavy Metal. Have gay erotic comics always been a part of that, or do they have their own history?

Actually, bisexuality was fairly present in Tijuana Bibles. Donald Duck swung both ways in his Tijuana Bible.

I would say that there’s always been a rift in the US at the “tradition” level between people doing single image gay smut and sequential art in underground comics and/or physique magazine context. By and large, the distinction is based on economics and prestige, which is why in the US people talk about Tom of Finland as a single-image artist for fine art collectors as if he’d never done comics. Some folks would cross over to doing both, like doing a series of paintings with a story that develops akin to religious narrative art.

That rift isn’t really present in Japanese and EU gay comics smut traditions since single image and sequential art get equal time in terms of respect and publication.

Can you tell us about any issues of censorship you've run up against in trying to publish your comics? I remember you wrote an article on Bleeding Cool last year about the topic, and we'd like some of those sweet, sweet pageviews they get over there.

I pretty much exist despite the United States’ context for comics culture as “family-friendly”. Really, it’s that simple.

If comics conventions didn’t have “family friendly” policies, I would be able to sign and sell our hardcovers at a table, A comics boutique-style store in the gayborhood here in Chicago told me that they are “family friendly” and won’t carry our gay comics smut BUT they will display, where you can’t avoid it, Image Comics rapey full-frontal smut like Black Kiss. I actually had to walk past it to get to the children’s comics section. When I asked them why they carried Black Kiss, they said their customers asked for it. Ha!!

Unfortunately, both of these dominant cultural institutions for comics will be OK with Catwoman in bondage statues being sold on site. I personally am OK with Catwoman in bondage statues but I am a little annoyed that she gets permission to titillate in a “family friendly” context but I don’t…

As for censorship in the digital marketplace, I blame Apple, for insisting their devices shouldn’t be used for smut, credit card services that won’t allow digital distributors to carry smut, PayPal, which is owned and run by Christian conservatives so it punishes people who use it to sell smut, and, eBay, which many years ago decided not to sell digital products.

Right now, I am lucky that I work with Selz, an Australian enterprise that was able to entice me to work with them because their CEO promised not to dump me, and Bruno Gmünder Verlag, a publisher with the clout to get gay comics smut published and distributed on an international scale through bookstores and online bookstore enterprises.

Mainstream superhero comics have been making an effort to be more inclusive, to varying degrees of success. Some of the big stories in the last decade have been Archie Comics with Kevin Keller, Batwoman, the X-Men Northstar wedding, and Wiccan and Hulking in the Young Avengers. Do you think the industry is doing a good job? What could they do better, besides showing the characters having explicit sex of course?

I think it’s never been better in mainstream comics, but it doesn’t make up for the fact that non-brand comics with gay protagonists are more invisible than ever in mainstream comic culture. Say, it’s really significant that Image doesn’t have a single series with a gay male or lesbian lead character that launched as an original gay male or lesbian lead series. (It does have a horror comic with a female lead but it was originally launched as a Devil’s Due series. I am not counting it because there’s no risk in that lead character for Image as it has a legacy.)

If you could do a Mature Readers book in your style for a big publisher (like Marvel's MAX line) featuring any established character or team, out of continuity so they don't have to be traditionally gay in the main canon, what property would you choose and what would be the pitch? Oh, you can't pick Schism 2 where Wolverine and Cyclops discover a more "constructive" way to work out their differences on leading the X-Men - that one is all mine.

Oh, I always thought it was interesting that Doc Magnus had to 1) create a lady robot to dance with, 2) has no believable rationale for avoiding her romantic enticements, 3) creates a bunch of male robots to plausibly distract her from confronting him and have no sexuality of their own (except for Tin, the outsider in the group of outsiders!), and 4) sends them off to get killed and rebuilt all the time so the situation never gets resolved one way or another. So, yeah, if I wrote a Vertigo Metal Men, it would have a closet case Doc Magnus. Also, all the male robots would have “responsometer malfunctions” that are metaphors for the weird ways the closet messes up your mental health. Vertigo editors may contact me at dalelazarov (at) gmail.com…

Have you thought about expanding beyond explicit material and doing non-explicit romance comics? Throw in some supernatural elements and you could have the gay Twilight on your hands.

OK, you managed to offend me with that Twilight suggestion. HOW DARE YOU ETC :-D

As I mentioned earlier, I have written a slice-of-life literary graphic novel with dialogue and captions that’s being drawn as I type. The problem with doing those is that it’s far easier to find people who want to draw gay comics smut than people who want to draw literary graphic novels. For one, there’s an issue with length; most literary graphic novels clock between 200 and 450 pages. Also, people who can draw slice of life, character-based comics well usually want to draw their own scripts.

To enjoy your comics, does the reader have to be a gay man?

Nope; you just have to be comfortable with gay male sexuality. Some of our best reviews have been written by lesbians, straight men and straight women. Here’s one from a straight man at Pop Matters: “STICKY proves worthy of attention even if you aren't looking for sexual stimulation... STICKY is free from the drama and politics that seem to crop up whenever homosexuality comes up in the media or entertainment. But by abandoning political screeds or stories about shame, secrets, family acceptance, and all the other storylines that are used over and over again, Lazarov and MacIsaac make a powerful political statement: this is normal.”

Can you appreciate smut if it's not tailored to your personal sexual preferences?

It depends on how much the material has to offer beyond its purpose as smut. I love the smut produced by The Hernandez Bros as well as softcore Heavy Metal comics.

Is there a lasting cultural value to porn?

Only time will tell. Tom of Finland just got a stamp in his home country so I suppose it does.

But to be clear, you can totally jerk off to these, right?

A fan told me he wanks to our gay comics smut while in his First Class cubicle on long transatlantic nights “with the seat reclined and shiatsu massage on… I lay the iPad next to me and browse. I’d rather wank to your stuff than anyone else’s, it’s so beautiful…”

I blushed and said I hoped we wouldn’t get him in trouble. He answered: “Nah… For what I pay, they’d never say no and the flight attendants either offer me stiff drinks (if they’re male) or an extra two blankets (if they’re female)…. Dale Lazarov Smut at 39,000 feet…a stiff drink and my stiff rod in hand under a fresh blanket in a First Class ‘pod’.”

Thanks again, Dale. Where can our readers go if they want to learn more about you or buy some of your books?

You can go to my website to see NSFW page samples: http://www.dalelazarov.com/. The front page features the digital releases and there’s a separate page for the gay comics smut available in hardcover. If you want to go to our digital store at Selz, it’s at https://dalelazarov.selz.com/. If you want to go to Amazon to get our hardcovers, they’re at http://amzn.to/1AlxKHq. I am also available to answer questions through my Facebook fanpage at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dale-Lazarov-comics-writer/134177316699948





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