In the late 1980s and early 1990s, several small press and indie comics publishers started publishing lines of porno comics. Eros Comics was probably the best-known of the group, but there were a slew of others. Most offered pretty much what you might expect: illustrated versions of the whole panoply of sex acts you might find on PornHub these days, with just about the same amount of plot as something like “stepmom discovers stepson in the shower” or “naked pizza delivery”.
As one might expect, few of those porno comics illuminated the human experience in any really meaningful way. One of these comics did stand out, though. Guy Colwell’s Doll mixes explicit sex with a profoundly upsetting meditation on sexuality, obsession, and the ways men idealize anonymous women. Fantagraphics has recently released a collection of Doll which makes a strong case for it as perhaps the best of all the porno comics.
The new Fantagraphics collection of Doll collects the eight issues originally published between 1989 and 1992. Those eight issues present a fascinating story, made all the more powerful due to tight continuity between stories. Colwell’s masterwork emphasizes the horror of the chase and the powerlessness of people driven mad by their sexual passions.
In the opening pages of Doll, the reader meets sculptor Wiley Waxman. Waxman is hosting an exhibition of his art at an upscale gallery, and he has a nice turnout for the show. One of the people who turns out for the event is a man named Evergood Crepspok. Crepspok stands out from the crowd because he is hideously disfigured. He begs Waxman to create a woman who can tolerate his horrible looks and provide him with satisfying sexual experiences for the rest of what promises to be his short life. Waxman demurs but finds himself fascinated by the man’s story. After a porn mogul offers to fund the project, Waxman creates the doll, complete with human-feeling skin and a vagina with a lubricating mechanism. With Waxman’s invention, Crepspok is finally able to have something approaching a normal sex life… until the porn producer double-crosses him and tries to steal the doll himself. The producer fails in his attempt to steal the doll,l and suddenly there is a horrible, violent free-for-all as friends and strangers try to capture the doll for their own use.
Thus the main “character”, so to speak, of this graphic novel, is the doll, an anatomically perfect sex toy created to mimic every orifice and body feature of a woman. The doll’s breasts feel like real breasts, its lips feel like real lips, and its vagina comes with several different configurations to fit any sexual need or requirement. The only thing the doll lacks is a brain.
It also lacks one more important attribute: the doll lacks agency. Its whole role is to provide sexual pleasure to men (well, mainly men, there are a couple of lesbian scenes but this is a highly male-centered work). It has no brain of its own or ability to learn or change or leave an abusive relationship. It is simply a passive object.
And yet this passive object obsesses nearly everyone who encounters it.
Everybody wants to fuck the doll. Everybody. The obsessives span every type of person and every walk of life: the sleazy porn mogul, the hideously disfigured man, an obnoxious intellectual, a homeless man, and dozens of others. Everybody wants to possess this doll and everybody wants to use her for their own sexual gratification. They are willing to beg, steal, even kill to seize the doll. It’s not spoiling much to say that one character even commits suicide rather than lose the doll. This sex object absolutely obsesses everyone who encounters her.
Though some characters are portrayed as having had normal sex lives, her presence causes people to obsess about the doll. They all have a deep compulsion for her, seemingly unsatisfied unless they are having sex with her or near her. Consequently, once they are exposed to her, nearly every sex scene in this 230-page book includes the doll. She is at the center of everybody’s lives and yet has no life of her own. She is a blank slate. People of both genders see what they want to see inside that blank slate, and her bottomless internal void triggers infinite levels of obsession.
There’s never any talk of strange mystical abilities in the doll or any other comic-booky explanation of the lust she incites. Instead, there is simply this implacable lust constantly simmering up from the human characters at the mere sight of Doll.
As one character says around the midpoint of the book, “It looks like you’ve created a monster that brings out some very weird energies in men. They make such objects out of women already, but now you’ve removed the woman and left the object… it… it seems to switch on some kind of unrestrained old brain aggression.”
It is a smart statement which illuminates the fascinating core idea of this book: how does the simple display of an objectified female form contrast with the sharing of true intimacy? How does simple, guilt-free, no-strings-attached sex contrast with the messy and complicated aspects of real human sexuality? Do people truly lust for what is simple? Can they willingly trade the comforting, complex pain of real life for the blank void of simple lust?
The word “aggression” is also appropriate in this context because the lust to possess (though never to own) the doll leads to destruction wherever the doll is taken. Colwell depicts a tremendous amount of aggression and determination among those vying to possess it, and yet the artificial creature at its center always escapes unscathed. She has no soul so she can never be destroyed. Only her artificial flesh can possibly be damaged, but it’s nearly impregnable because her flesh is the fulfillment of men's dreams.
The doll is a tabula rasa. She fulfills dreams because she is a receptacle for dreams as well as bodily fluids. In the eyes of so many of the characters in this book, the doll represents a sort of perfection which they aspire to hold, even if briefly. The reactions to her show the shallowness of mere lust. Sex with the doll provides physical intimacy but the kind of physical intimacy she provides also deliberately avoids the kind of emotional intimacy which can provide true happiness. She can provide perfection for a time, but, eventually, the void at her center prevents true happiness.
One of the most interesting sequences of the book takes place at a meditation retreat where acolytes are sworn to celibacy. One of the religious followers discovers the doll in the woods and brings it to the retreat, where its naked body is used to tempt the religious men and women to prove their commitment to God. One by one, all the men succumb to her charms and realize they can’t leave behind their grounded, human lives.
This is a haunting sequence because the doll literally changes the way these men view their worlds. She upsets a lifetime of study, years of meditation and thought, simply because she is in the same physical location as them. She is impossible to ignore. Her vagina is too much for them to resist, and so, in turn, everyone succumbs to base sexuality over spiritual fulfillment.
Since all these tableaux are presented with a straight face and little editorializing, the reader is confronted with the task of assessing the impact of this doll. The serious tone and Colwell’s unadorned artwork set this story firmly in the real world, albeit a real world before cell phones and one in which a doll like this could be created. I’m inclined to see the key story beats as intentional and for the themes of the story to be as Colwell intended. A thoughtful interview between Colwell and cartoonist Katie Skelly closes out this book. In that interview, Colwell talks about how he wanted to create more than a wank book. Instead, he wanted to create a comic which illuminated themes he explored in his social-realist painting and in his acclaimed comic Inner City Romance.
One of those key themes is that while everybody seeks the doll, and many people possess it for short periods of time, no-one ever actually owns it. Like the idea of lust or the concept that even a white-hot passion will eventually cool, the fixation on the doll simply can’t be held by one single person for more than a short time. Though everyone seeks the anonymous pleasures of the doll, nobody actually possesses it. They simply cannot possess it. Like the idea of lust itself, there is nothing about the doll which can actually be possessed forever once the powers of its flesh become normalized. There is no space for the doll once the passion cools. Ultimately, there is no way to have a positive relationship centered exclusively around sex. Once passion and raw sexuality settle into everyday prosaic sexuality and the need for something more fulfilling in a relationship arises, the need for an unthinking sex doll dissipates. She fills a gap for a time, but eventually the need to fill that gap disappears.
The doll leaves a trail of destruction everywhere she goes. This volume starts with a delightful and happily consensual sex scene between Wiley and his wife Alicia. By the end of the book, though, Wiley and Alicia are divorced. The porn mogul is a millionaire at the beginning of Doll but penniless by the end. Poor Crepspok dies of cancer. The book even ends with a riot in the streets and the ominous comment “we’re not going to find her. Like a perpetual, tortured obsessive desire that can never be satisfied, she will gnaw away at the serenity of the world.” The emotions created by the doll are implacable. Once unleashed, they can never be stopped.
Doll may have been published as part of a line of wank books, but creator Guy Colwell delivers much more than mere sexual thrills. In fact, he delivers a comic that is nearly the precise opposite of what it promises. In the end, Doll reads like a warning that excessive blind lust will corrupt minds, destroy lives, kill relationships, and act as slow poison for society. It’s a sobering book which contains themes that are as contemporary as they were thirty years ago. Kudos to Fantagraphics for reviving this important, intriguing work. Based on the work reprinted here and in the Inner City Romance volume, Guy Colwell is an unsung talent who has delivered some of the most provocative comics ever published.
-----------------------------------------------------------------Jason Sacks is the host of the Classic Comics Cavalcade podcast. He writes books about comics history, including the forthcoming Steve Gerber: Conversations (due July 2019), Jim Shooter: Conversations, The American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1990s and The American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1970s, when he’s not hiking, working in the software biz, or tracking down lost treasure.