Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Kneejerk moment: Sex and not sex

So Charlie Jane Anders wrote a piece for i09 about the use of sex in fiction and it reminded me of the page above which is probably the most famous rendition of sex that (n)ever occurred in Marvel Comics for any number of reasons.

First off, it was while Jim Steranko was doing his famous run on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. Steranko had been in advertising prior to coming to comics, which is blatantly obvious via any casual glance at his work, including the above. He was used to spotlighting the topic of interest and didn't spend a lot of time on backgrounds or other supporting aspects to the panels which most good comic artists (and writers. and editors. and readers.) regard as essential to the proper delivery of the medium. There's a vast difference between comic strips and comic books. The former usually deliver a message or a joke. The latter deliver a story. If you're going to tell a story, you need to flesh it out. That fleshing is often done by including background art in the panels as the story proceeds. Think of it as description in prose or part of the cinematography of a film. However, Steranko was so good at delivering his story, even without words (as on the page above), that he was one of the few that could dispense with the backgrounds and still produce masterful work. In a way, he was an expression of the other half of that cinematography aspect, in which what the camera shows you, front and center, what you need to understand the writer's vision.

Secondly, this page was produced and published in 1968, while the comics industry was still under the onerous weight of the Comics Code Authority, designed to protect all young minds from the horrible consequences of real life and humanity and stuff. So, even though Steranko wanted to show Nick Fury and Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine relaxing at home in the manner that many lovers do, the CCA would have forbidden young eyes from seeing anything even resembling sex or intimate contact (kissing on the lips was also verboten under the Code.) So he drew the scene in as oblique a manner as he could in order to get it past the censors which were (I shit you not) a collection of uptight women in their 50s and 60s exactly as you would expect in stereotypical fashion. Of course, by that point Marvel had figured out that their primary buying audience were actually college-aged men, which were not exactly the target waifs of the Code but were easily smart enough to figure out exactly what was going in this scene. Funnily enough, it still had to be altered by the editors from his original production as, for example, he originally drew the phone off the hook, but that was considered too suggestive and something that the censors would flag.

The best part about this is that, of course, the scene became famous precisely because it showed no nudity or intimate activity. It's perfectly seductive and enthralling just as it is and delivers the message better than anything overt or softcore ever could have. Just as Charlie notes in her column, subtlety is often far sexier than actual sex and that's something that many, many authors, directors, and artists often fail to realize.

As noted frequently here, Game of Thrones has often used sex to drive the story, not because it was essential for the characters at that moment, but because it was a way for Martin to demonstrate that Westeros was a real place with real people who had real desires and sex (and fire and blood) is one of them. However, it became so frequent that a term was soon coined for it by the fanbase: "sexposition". I don't object to it in the show and, admittedly, there is so much story to tell in A Song of Ice and Fire that the kind of subtle moments that can convey real energy in a 2-hour film would be lost in the fairly hectic pace that the show currently has. The exploration of character is taking place over long arcs, whereas the more subtle moments oddly have to be shown at a slower pace in what is actually a shorter format. So there is nothing subtle about the sex in GoT and it can occasionally feel ham-handed as a consequence or present merely for the titillation that one seems to expect out of HBO's "adult" series.

In contrast, this is the opening shot of Blue is the Warmest Color, a film I've raved about before and mildly criticized for the (ahem) extended length of its sex scenes. But this opening scene may be the hottest one in the film, as it's the first glance between the two women and the expression of desire fairly explodes off the screen, whether you choose to see it as love at first sight or lust at first sight or both. You can feel the air smoldering between the two of them in every scene they share before they ever get horizontal and it's a fair question to ask whether that would have been enough, along with some properly placed scenery as in Steranko's work, to convey the intensity of their relationship even without the rest of the flesh. I'm not trying to be a prudish critic here, either. I was fine with the sex scenes in the film and I think there's something to be gained from watching the act itself as art. But I think couching it properly so that it serves a purpose in the story other than trying to snare the simple lust of the reader/viewer and instead engages her imagination is the best path in any creative work.

I sold a story recently that does have a fairly intense sex scene in it. I included it because the main character has been going through a series of moments where he doesn't quite know where he is and he begins reacting to things in a fairly emotional fashion, so it felt appropriate to place it there, as it also engages the sensations of heat and sweat. He was reacting in a very primal fashion, so it seemed right to show one of the most primal activities of the human condition in a way that perhaps confronts the reader, rather than entices. Could I have done it in a less abrupt fashion? Probably. But the story itself is relatively visceral to begin with, so I guess we'll see if I was right when it's released. Perhaps the adage "if it feels right, do it" also applies to writing to some degree?

And, all of that said, there's nothing wrong with just good, old pr0n if that's what you're into. There's a reason it's one of the foundation stones of the Interwebs: people like it. Everyone except Hobby Lobby, anyway.

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