Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Let’s Talk About Sex

Posted by Don MacPherson on January 25th, 2007

nEuROTIC graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: John Cuneo
Editor: Kim Thompson
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
Price: $19.95 US

Note: This review of adult material and should not be viewed by underage readers.

Fantagraphics Books is one of those publishers in the industry that’s difficult to nail down. It was onceĀ propped up by a profitable porno-comic line, but it now also produces a number of important works, notably archival ones such as the new Peanuts and Dennis the Menace hardcover collections of decades-old, classic comic strips. This book — named and oddly capitalized to capture the surreal and sexual tone of the cartooning within — lies somewhere in between. This book — not a graphic novel, really — is a sketch collection of unpublished artwork by noted U.S. cartoonist John Cuneo, whose recognizable style has appeared in a wide variety of publications, from the cerebral New Yorker to the more accessible Entertainment Weekly. It’s an interesting look inside the mind of a creator with a twisted bent. Cuneo’s work will seem familiar, and this book allows him to cut loose and transgress the taboo. To say nEuROTIC is pornographic is completely off the mark, though. This book does not titillate. It’s occasionally depraved, sometimes challenging and often funny. This is a coffee-table book for those who delight in shocking people, who see offending material as a means to enlighten rather than frighten.

Cuneo’s cartooning style is an exaggerated one. Some of his more recognizable work in magazines is caricature, but the sexual and social commentaries he offers up here boast a surreal quality. I’m actually put in mind of Guy (B.P.R.D.) Davis’s style. Cuneo clearly has a strong eye for anatomy, which makes his distortions of the human form all the more disturbing and compelling. Many of his figures are plain and plump in appearance, but their sexuality still shines through, These bizarre everymen and everywomen often serve as symbols of sexual celebration.

There are also repeated instances of harsh imagery mixed in with the sexuality, even going so far as mutilation, but Cuneo’s message doesn’t come off as a sick one. Instead, just as he offers appreciations of human sexuality, he also delivers criticism of our social and sexual behavior. Male figures are often depicted as cruel, weak or clueless. Women are sometimes portrayed as unfortunate objects of that male sexual hunger and aggressive energy, but they’re also shown to be strong and powerful, deciding who gets to play and who is punished.

Not all of the cartoons in the book are sexual in tone. While most are, several focus on the artist’s craft itself and his own creative frustrations and elations. While the image of a huge, flaccid pencil in an artist’s arms is sexual in tone, it’s subtle and secondary to the actual message. The final cartoon is the most telling about why Cuneo illustrates. His craft is literally shown to be a mask that allows him to fly and create new worlds, but it’s also shown to be a difficult process.

What’s most interesting about these illustrations, though, is what they might say about the artist himself. Is he kind of twisted? Yes. Is he sick? Jesus, no. Maybe these colored sketches are telling or not, but they do show a willingness to be exposed and honest. They speak of overwhelming sexual urges. They speak of shyness. They speak of orgasmic fantasies and delusions of inferiority. I think most of all, they speak about sexual curiosity, of experimentation and exploration. And those are always good, healthy thoughts. 7/10

This hardcover book is slated for release March 21.

One Response to “Let’s Talk About Sex”

  1. JPop Says:

    Even though it might not be for me, I think it is important for works like this to exist. And it takes some balls to do a book like this, and to publish a book like this in the current social climate. Kudos to Cuneo and Fantagraphics.