Over the last twenty years, the Western world's attitude toward nudity in forms of pop culture has shifted toward a more liberal attitude at an unprecedented rate. Images of nude bodies and sexual themes that used to be confined to either underground or exploitive â€“ i.e., pornographic â€“ venues have today become a mainstay of most primetime programming and blockbuster cinema.
A recent Comixpedia.com discussion attempted to gauge whether the same trend can be detected in webcomics. With the advent of the Internet and its infamous gray legal waters, the passive bystander might have expected a proliferation of nude comic strip scenarios.
Contributors to the discussion expressed a great degree of comfort with the idea of the nude form in Web comics â€“ when they weren't cracking an endless stream of boob or scrotum jokes. But among them was a general tentativeness when it came to stripping characters of less clothing than "appropriate" or "necessary" â€“ two words that appeared frequently in contributors' threads in the forum.
Simply put, in the words of one contributor â€“ Pepius: "Aside from a pornographic comic, nudity should be only used for the sake of the story."
Personal interviews with a number of webcomics creators revealed that creators value the balance of nudity for the sake of art and not for cheap hits.
"I intentionally keep the nudity pretty conservative just to keep it realistic," said Justin Pierce, creator of Killroy and Tina. "It bothered me growing up how the overwhelming majority of superheroines felt obligated to dress scantily â€“ even when it didn't fit their persona. Wonder Woman may not need armor plating, but she doesn't need to dress in a bikini."
That said, Pierce then commented, "I have used nudity once or twice in Killroy and Tina's two-and-a-half year history, but it had a place in the story."
Even contributors who admit they've never skimped on characters' clothing, such as John Troutman, creator of Basil Flint, expressed comfort with the idea, but within strict guidelines.
"If sex or nudity fits into the story, I think it's great. It can enhance a story a great deal more than having to skirt around or censor the issue," he said. "But if I use nudity or sexual themes they have to be a legitimate plot point and not suck."
So just what is appropriate timing and placing? Those who regularly depict nudity in their work, such as Stephen Crowley, creator of the naturist comic strip, Loxie and Zoot claim their work places high regard on realism and appropriate context by acknowledging nudity and sexuality as basic facets of the human existence.
"The default condition for every person's body is nude," reads the site intro to Loxie and Zoot. "Where there is distortion of body image, people usually hate, or feel ashamed of, or inadequate about, some part or another of their own bodies, if not all of it."
Crowley says Loxie and Zoot, which takes place at a nudist resort where the characters are perpetually in the buck, shouldn't be classified as porn since it does not address sexual themes. "Comments I read about L&Z in forums often refer, sometimes incredulously, to the fact that there is so much nudity and yet it isn't porn or hentai â€“ as if it's never occurred to the author that the two things aren't instantly inclusive," he says.
On the other end of the spectrum, Crowley says he gets lot of feedback from people who immediately warm to Loxie and Zoot, despite the preconceived notions with which they enter the site.
"Many people write to tell me they feel better about their own bodies after reading L&Z and, to me, that is an amazingly wonderful thing! It doesn't convert them to being a nudist â€“ which isn't my intention â€“ but it does give them a bit of perspective on the fear and loathing about nudity and our bodies that's been pumped into our minds since the day we're born," says Crowley.
Other webcomic creators who use nudity and sexual themes in their strips also credited their colleagues' reticence to the puritanical and shameful mores still promoted in society regarding nudity in most art forms.
"Many Webcomickers live in America, which teaches everyone that sex is dirty, filthy, and you're a bad person if you have an interest in it," says Hard Artist, creator of Sexy Losers, a strip whose plots regularly involve masturbation, nudity and sex or any combination of the above.
"It's a tradition in the American comic world to treat their comic characters as if they didn't have normal human urges so I feel that many artists are either "playing along" with this convention (for fear of losing their credibility as a comic artist) or are just so enveloped in the culture themselves that they can't see outside of it," he says.
The one line that Hard Artist draws in his work is the depiction of minors. Aside from that, he insists that Sexy Losers is a reflection of his own sense of humor, one he suspects many readers share with him.
"My real life sense of humor tends to drift in that direction anyway, so doing a crude humor comic seemed to be the direction to go," he says. "I do think SL is a funny comic above it being a sex comic. The joke is first and foremost. I'm hoping that's why people come to my site, for a laugh. If they come for the pornography… geez, there are millions of better sites to go to for that."
One main concern for webcomic creators who don't depict nudity on their sites â€“ but still say they're comfortable with it â€“ is the use of nudity to pander to a wider audience.
"I feel more comfortable with nudity now, although the use of nudity for titillation and cheap hits still earns my ire," says Ping Teo, a.k.a. Phalanx, author of The Jaded.
"There was this adventure/fantasy comic I used to read (no names here) that had pretty interesting characters, and a down-to-earth storyline that was quite intriguing. Unfortunately plonk in the middle of the story, the creator decided to insert a rather gratuitous and out-of-place sex scene for no apparent reason," she said.
"In my humble opinion, that scene didn't seem to exist for a reason other than to give the creator a chance to advertise on his front page: "Nudity in today's comic! Vote for me at so-and-so toplists/donate thru Paypal and maybe I'll do it again!" she adds.
But for creators like Hard Artist, nudity isn't necessarily a means of drawing people in. Rather, it is simply another form of freedom of expression.
"To have total freedom of expression, one can't consider what ANYONE thinks. A comic like mine depends so much on that freedom. Trying to please an audience is just a form of censorship really â€“ in order to please an audience you got to stop doing things that you think they may not like," he says.
"This gets complicated because one can't please everyone all of the time. It's best just not to play that game and do the comic for yourself."