Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns
So here's the thing. I like porn.
I don't talk a lot about liking porn, because you're not supposed to come right out and say it. "Man, what a beautiful morning," you never say. "I think I'll have a cup of tea, and maybe go down to the market, and when I get back I'm going to enjoy the bounties of porn that are my birthright as an internet consumer." People would look at you funny if you did, and your boss would stop letting you have complimentary coffee and donuts in the morning.
But I do like it. And most of you probably do too. We might not be cheerful about it - we might not march into gas stations with our head held high, grabbing the latest magazines off the rack and marching right up to the gas station attendant to make our purchases (that might be the one situation in life where you are that concerned about what a gas station attendant thinks of you) - but we do like it.
Which leads us inexorably to porn comics, which I don't often talk about either.
I specifically decided, way back when, to rarely if ever talk about sexually explicit comics on Websnark. I'm something of a prude, perhaps, but it was just one of those things I realized would come up that I would give a bye. So, I don't talk about Sexy Losers on Websnark, even though it's damn funny and consistently high quality. I don't talk about White Lightning Productions (even the PG stuff) even though they were one of the first sites to actually put up a permanent link to Websnark. I don't talk about Ghastly's Ghastly Comic even though I'm pretty sure he's building a complicated summoning rite in the heart of the Internet designed to have an X-rated cthuloid monster rise up out of Cisco's routers, point at us and laugh.
And I don't talk about Slipshine.
Which means, among other things, I don't often talk about Josh Lesnick.
Josh Lesnick's old school. The first comic of his I remember was Wendy, which was frenetic and fun and often darn sexual, but wasn't so much a porn comic as it was a webcomic where pornish things happened with startling regularity. (I don't remember off the top of my head if we actually saw sex or not in the strip. And, being lazy, I haven't bothered to look it up.) Certainly, Wendy wasn't any 'harder core' than Exploitation Now, Michael Poe's pre-Errant Story comic.
But, for whatever reason, Michael Poe wasn't immediately equated with porn, and Josh Lesnick was. Of course, Lesnick being involved with a project called Orgymania probably had something to do with that.
In any case, Lesnick's Wendy was popular, but clearly didn't thrill him. I remember he actually "finished" Wendy twice. Once in the legendary "Wendy #300," which I can't find archived on the internet in the four seconds it took me to type "Lesnick Wendy #300" into Google and check the first link that came up, so if you want to find it you're on your own. If I remember correctly, Wendy #300 stopped in the middle of a boffo storyline, had some pretty depressed sounding dialogue, and Wendy took off her clothes and ended the comic. Several months later Wendy returned and... well, sort of petered out.
His second well known comic (not counting explicit pornography, which I'll get to in a moment) was Cutewendy. Cutewendy (which suffered from having a character with the same name as Wendy who also looked clearly like a chibi version of Wendy). Cutewendy was funny, and crazy, and not at all pornish, and in a lot of ways represented Lesnick's first giant leap into the style of comics he clearly wanted to move in. The art was sketchy - not bad, mind. It literally looked like he was just sketching instead of doing careful finishes - and the humor was absurdist, and he was clearly having fun. And that fun was infectious.
It's probably significant that Wendy both had a dark and depressed "ending" and then restarted and petered out, but Cutewendy had a complete, proper series end, when he was finished with it. Lesnick clearly cared a lot about it, and clearly enjoyed it right up until the end. In fact, I suspect the reason he ended it was less wanting to just end the thing and more because he wanted to have a clearer break between his early Wendy efforts and his more current directions. I could be wrong, mind, but it's what I suspect.
After the end of Cutewendy, Lesnick started Girly, which is technically a sequel (one of the characters is the daughter of Cutewendy and her Sidekick). The style of humor and the early art was reminiscent of Cutewendy's, but from the very beginning there was added sophistication. Over the next several strips, we saw the style evolve and grow. It really seemed - and seems, to this day - like Lesnick had found the strip that reflected his passions, his sense of humor, and his artistic style. Which, given that he was a multi-year veteran of webcomics - Wendy was updating regularly back in 1999 - should have put Girly up front on everyone's lists. Especially when we consider that, like Kurtz, Abrams, Gabe, Tycho, and all the other usual suspects we rattle off when we decide to equate artistic success with financial success, Lesnick makes his living off of cartoon art.
However... well, we don't. Lesnick ends up being an afterthought (or entirely forgotten), because the way he makes that living is with porn.
Slipshine grew out of Lesnick's participation in the aforementioned Orgymania. It is, however, a highly successful web concern. It features many artists contributing many different stories with many different themes, exploring both sides of the sexually explicit world. There are works on there that are clearly Erotica, and works on there that are clearly straight Pornography, and works on there that blend between the two. The thing that leaps out at a reader, however, is the cheerfulness of the whole affair. Not only isn't Slipshine ashamed to be pornography... it's downright enthusiastic.
In other words, it's sex-positive.
And that's not all that easy to find in today's porn landscape.
Look, I'm not here to trash anyone's fantasy life. I'm really not. If you get off on ultraviolent rape fantasies and humiliation fantasies, that's okay with me, no matter which side of the equation you're on. The thing is, over time the internet's more accessible porn has pushed farther and farther into those more extreme fantasies. Things like Usenet's alt.sex.* hierarchy are laden with pedophilia, non-consentual (and very violent) assaults, pain, and humiliation. Stories and comics where the victim is left sobbing and broken at the end. And like I said, if you like that, then good enough. But it's really not my scene. It's misogynistic. (Sometimes men are the victims in these stories, but more often it's a woman. Often an 'uppity woman' who really 'had it coming.' Yeah.) Most of all, it's based on suffering, and my brain isn't really wired that way. It comes across as sex-negative. Sex is a weapon, used to master, not pleasure, in those stories.
And that's not my thing. Apologies to you if it's yours. I'm not looking for an argument.
Slipshine might have some of that somewhere on its site (I don't pretend to have looked at everything on Slipshine), but the overwhelming message of Slipshine is sex-positive. Sex is a happy thing there. Everyone involved seems to be enjoying themselves. At the end of the scene, all the participants are pretty glad they were a part of it. If anyone's smug, then everyone's smug.
It kind of reminds me of XXXenophile, by the Foglios et al. XXXenophile was full-on porn, but it was full-on porn where everybody was pretty glad to be involved in sex. There was no guilt or pain or humiliation - just good clean dirty fun. That's what Slipshine had going for it.
Why the Foglios aren't forever associated with porn as a result, I'll never know. Perhaps it's the sheer joy of it all. Or residual affection for What's New and Buck Godot: Zapgun for Hire. As it is, the Foglios produce new projects all the time and they're always taken on their own merits (with Girl Genius making the leap from printed comic books to the web and printed compilations complete with monumental and enthusiastic fanbase intact). They're invited to guest week Sluggy Freelance, do a week that features heavy amounts of ZoÃ« in lingerie, and people say "yay! Hah hah! Those sexy, funny Foglios!"
For the record, I'm one of them. But then, ZoÃ« looked good in lingerie. But the question remains... why is Josh Lesnick considered Josh "Slipshine" Lesnick, while Phil Foglio isn't Phil "XXXenophile" Foglio?
It's not as if porn hasn't been supporting the growth of alternative and independent comics for a Hell of a lot longer than the World Wide Web has existed. Fantagraphics, who did more to promote independent comics in the 70's, 80's and 90's than pretty much all other independent comics outlets put together, for years and years paid for producing Eightball and keeping R. Crumb in print thanks to publishing pornographic comics. In fact, when Fantagraphics nearly went under, a couple of years back, I was pretty certain that a core reason was the sudden proliferation of free comic porn on the internet (often of significantly lower quality or actually pirated from Fantagraphics, but free and not involving having to be in the comics store buying porn comics from a guy who made the gas station attendant look wholesome) undercutting the sales figures from Eros Comix. Why should Gary Groth support The Comics Journal and Ghost World on the backs of porn and Josh Lesnick not support Girly the same way?
And let's not pretend. A good number of popular and acclaimed writers supported themselves by writing porn under pseudonyms. Even in today's world, the magazines need a steady supply of sex-positive happy stories that feed their audience's kink. And I'd be lying if I said it never occurred to me that hey, I like money, and I could probably get some if I wrote a story that opened with "I was working at my job in the mall on the day that Trudi, whose firm mammaries are pert and yet the size and vague shape of casaba melons, went to work at the Orange Julius stand." I bet it's crossed the mind of one or two of you out there, too.
For that matter... why is it that Clay/Hard/Whoever and Ghastly end up being the people referenced first and foremost when we talk about explicit webcomics? Is it purely the lack of a subscription wall? Is it because Sexy Losers and Ghastly's Ghastly Comic are satires of porn where Slipshine is the real deal? I don't know. I just know that I see a lot more people admitting to reading and enjoying Sexy Losers than even Girly, which makes no sense to me at all. Certainly, while they're not the same thing, Sexy Losers and Girly are comparable in quality, in humor, and in vision. And you can tell your mother about Girly and not have her stare at you.
Regardless, Sexy Losers and Ghastly are usually on peoples' link lists or discussed in places... well, like here at Comixpedia. But Josh Lesnick tends to only get brought up during a "Sex in Webcomics" issue. (And sadly, the main thing people remember from Comixpedia's "Sex in Webcomics" issue was a woman humping an iMac in the cover art.)
In any case... Josh Lesnick has hit the wall. He is officially giving up porn, to focus exclusively on non-explicit comics.
(Can you imagine Gary Groth leaning back, looking at the sales figures for The Complete Peanuts Collection, and saying "screw it. Pulp the remaining backstock of Bondage Fairies. We don't need them any more? We don't want them any more?" Me either.)
Lesnick has clearly been increasingly disillusioned with drawing porn. In a recent public Livejournal post, he said he had been enjoying restarting one of the more popular porn features on Slipshine - The Story of the Pet Elf - and really enjoyed drawing it right up until he reached the sex scene. And then it was just tedious. Which I can believe.
He also mentioned he hit the breaking point when he wrote a superheroine porn comic. And that, I can believe, because I've seen superheroine porn comics before.
Look, I like porn. I said and admitted it. I like superheroes too. And I like superheroines. The majority of my City of Heroes characters are females. I like the whole concept of "hot powerful woman in skintight clothing fighting crime."
I am not a fan of superheroine porn comics. Because the vast majority of them - all I have encountered - take the whole violence/rape/breaking thing and turn the dial up to eleven. There is an entire fetish community devoted to this particular kink, and the stories are always essentially the same. An arrogant (and militantly feminist) superheroine attacks evil, but her hubris lets her attackers get the upper hand. They proceed to violently and horrifically beat her, then rape her, then "tame" her. A non-trivial number of those stories involve impregnating her, too. To me, these things aren't about superheroines at all. They're explicit versions of Spandex Babes of Gor.
(White Lightning Productions, I suppose, could be seen as sex-positive Superheroine Porn. At the same time... WLP is niche/fetish for the most part, and the fact that a superheroine trope or two works its way into it is really the least of what's on your mind when you read it.)
And if you're into it, that's fine. I'm not here to harsh your buzz. But for me? It takes the misogyny of the standard "humiliation/NC sex-negative porn" I mentioned up above - which simmers at the 'wow, that's disturbing' level for me - and jacks it all the way up to MY EYES! THE GOGGLES DO NOTHING! It's mean porn. Hateful porn.
In researching this column, I actually read Lesnick's superheroine porn comic. And it kind of followed that same formula. There was reader voting involved, so take that for what it's worth. At the end of the comic, however, before it hit the point I mentioned, Lesnick stopped the reader votes and subverted the thing. It was glorious. And not misogynistic at all.
And I can totally see why Lesnick decided, "That's it. I'm done," after he drew it.
So. Slipshine isn't going away, which is a good thing. Losing an unremittingly sex positive porn site would darken the landscape that much more, and besides, there are a lot of other artists who make money working on the site. They're going to continue doing what they're doing, and I imagine Josh will still be involved with administrative details behind the scenes. However, Josh Lesnick is moving to put his own porn behind him, and move forward with Girly and - one assumes - other projects. Maybe he figures if he closes his Slipshine output down, he'll get to move into the Foglio-space where people remember he was involved with porn, but remember it fondly and focus on what he's doing. Maybe he just wants to prove to himself that he can make it purely on the strips he loves to do, not the strips that "pay the bills." Maybe he just wants that part of his life to be over, and see what happens next.
I'm not sure what will happen. However, Josh Lesnick's been a part of webcomics too long and too completely to do anything he's unhappy with. Where he goes from here, I don't know. But I'll be reading.
And whether you're a fan of Slipshine or not, you should be reading too. Because Girly is a lot of fun.